Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The best of Phuket Island

For reasons that I can no longer recall, this piece was never submitted for publication. It was written after I took my solo trip to Phuket circa April 2015. 

Providing great customer service in Thailand seems second nature. Understandably so since it receives more than twenty-six million visitors per annum, compared to neighbouring Cambodia at only four million.

My experiences of guided tours in Phuket had been wonderful, probably the best I have ever had. Mostly men, the guides were extremely respectful, polite, attentive and charming. Mr. Yew was one of them.

Not unlike many Thais, Mr. Yew is small in size but big in heart. With his sun-bleached hair, weather-beaten skin and boyish face, it was hard to tell how old he was until he revealed having a twenty-three year old son and a baby on the way.

The Hong by Starlight Kayaking Tour run by the John Gray Kayak Company is at the top of my must-do list when you’re in Phuket. Forget about Phi Phi Island with dozens of boisterous tourists attached permanently to their monstrous selfie polls, Phang Nga offers a breathtakingly scenic view in a quiet, serene and spiritual ambience, all thanks to the hardworking team of guides such as Mr. Yew.

Departing from Ao Po jetty on a twin-engine escort boat to the protected Ao Phang Nga National Park at around 2pm, the team led by Mr. Yew, Farook and Nik aka Morgan Freeman for his uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor, not only in appearance but also voice, quickly got into work and everything flowed like clockwork for the next eight to nine hours.

Guests were ushered to the upper deck where a light lunch of crispy spring rolls, tasty stir-fry egg noodles and fresh fruits were served with unlimited serving of water, iced tea and strawberry cordial. While we enjoyed the meal a la buffet style, about five or more staff worked behind the scene on the lower deck to ensure that tea and dinner would be ready as scheduled. All meals were freshly prepared on the boat.

Mr. Yew wasted no time briefing us on what to do and not to do during the trip. Since this is a protected national park, there shall be no smoking, littering and touching of anything that belongs to the wild while on the kayak.

“Please do not touch the oyster shells covering the bottom of the limestone sea caves. They are razor sharp and they will cut you, right?” Mr. Yew cautioned. “When we start to get on the kayak, please remain quiet at all time. At the caves, your voice will echo and this will frighten the animals, right? Remember, we are the tourists coming to see the wild animals, not the other way round. When they are frightened, they will run away and you will not see them, right?”

You would have noticed by now how Mr. Yew has a habit of ending most sentences with a “right” followed by a question mark. Oddly enough, Farook had the same habit too.

As we got closer to the limestone caves or hongs as the Thais call them, there was utter silence as we soaked in the splendour of the view before us. Erected between a sea of emerald green water, the hongs reminded us of how we were all just visitors in a world where they have been standing tall for over millions of years.

A guide, served also as a personal kayak driver for the entire tour, was assigned to each group of guests. Each kayak can take about two to three people depending on the size of the passenger.
Since I was alone, I got Mr. Yew and a kayak entirely to myself. This would mark the beginning of a privileged relationship where I learned much from Mr. Yew, who turned out to be a nature expert.

We started off in single file, slowly and gently outlining the caves for about one to two kilometres before entering the narrow opening of a tunnel leading to a lagoon. I looked up and saw several brown hawks circling from a respectful distance above us. We managed to take refuge from the blistering heat beneath the shadows of massive stalactites formed from calcium and other mineral deposits trickling down from the top of the caves. According to Mr. Yes, it takes about five years to form one centimeter of stalactite.

“Lie flat on your back. We’re entering a cave now. Make sure you don’t lift your hands or feet because the oysters will cut you, right?” Mr. Yew warned before he skilfully manoeuvred the kayak into a dark tunnel. I was nervous when I saw how narrow the opening was and felt almost certain that we were going to hit a shell-covered rock which would puncture the kayak and left us to die.  It didn’t of course, and my fear vanished as we floated gently beneath the tunnel with the ceiling barely an inch above my face. This is definitely not an exercise for those with claustrophobia.

Mr. Yew said he was trained for two weeks on how to manoeuvre a kayak and during that time suffered many cuts on his arms and head. He has been doing this for twelve years. Before that he was a bird watcher guide but said he much prefers his current job because the paddling keeps him strong and healthy. His bird-watching days definitely provided him with a wealth of ornithological knowledge as he identified a blue rock thrush, heron and some interesting sounds he claimed made by woodpeckers and hornbills on the island during our trip.

Phang Nga Bay hosts a variety of interesting wildlife such as the long tail macaque which feeds on shell fish and is apparently a good swimmer and the mudskipper, an amphibious fish that can walk on land with their pectoral fins. With their earth-tone scales, they camouflage well in between mangrove roots making them difficult to spot for the untrained eyes.

We saw small fiddler crabs, just about two inches in size, easily identified by their distinctive asymmetrical yellow claw, one much bigger than the other only for the male, scampering nervously on the sandy bank of a lagoon.

As Mr. Yew was about to paddle away from the bank, the guide on the kayak next to ours leaned forward to get a closer look at something that had obviously caught his attention. He scanned the bank frantically and started whispering excitedly to Mr. Yew.

The two men soon embarked in a brief and almost silent exchange in Thai; the other pointing out something while Mr. Yew strained to follow his lead. I was left confused but desperately curious. Finally, both men ended their conversation, looking triumphant.

“He saw a crab that has its bigger claw on the left side, very unusual for a fiddler male crab which often has the bigger claw on the right,” Mr. Yew translated. “He has very sharp eyes,” he added. I couldn’t help but sensed a slight tinge of regret and envy in his voice. After knowing Mr. Yew a little bit more, I would not be surprise if he wished he had been the first guide who had spotted the special fiddler crap so that he could show me because by doing that, he would have succeeded in making me the most special guest in the entire tour group.

“So what do you do in Malaysia, Ka Ea?” Mr. Yew asked me all of a sudden. I explained that I work for a human rights non-governmental organisation. He nodded in approval and I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought of Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté law which threatens to imprison anyone who is critical of the King.

“You know, I have nothing to compare our King with because I have not lived in other country with a King, right? The law says we must be loyal and obey the King and so we must do as the law says, right?” He said. “But I think our King is good. He successfully brokered a deal with the nomadic hill tribes from Laos and Burma who had entered and destroyed much of Thailand’s forests to grow opium by granting them nationality and making healthcare, education and public services accessible to them.”

“So they stopped growing opium and the problem was solved?” I asked in amazement.

“Yes, but now we have a problem with amphetamine,” Mr. Yew answered ruefully.

According to Mr. Yew, many men he knows succumbed to amphetamine addiction. Such addiction has been responsible for the ruin of many family units where hard-earned income generated by family members are spent on feeding the addiction, exacerbated by corrupted enforcement officers.

“These men lose their jobs because they are unable to work under the influence of amphetamine,” he said and then added, “As long as the enforcement officers are corrupted, this problem will remain.”

Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip was the recreation of the Loy Krathong festival, celebrated only in November. Together with their guides, guests built the krathong made out of banana stem, leaves, orchids, marigolds, incense and candles.

We shared a light moment when Mr. Yew and his colleagues teased each other as they raced to make the most beautiful and intricate krathong and because each guide is encouraged to express their inner creativity, each krathong was unique from one to the other.

“Yours is going to be the most beautiful because you go to a lady boy school, right?” Mr. Yew taunted his colleague who was assembling a rather intricate design as everyone burst out laughing.

I watched in amazement as Mr. Yew skilfully fashioned two birds out of orchid buds with just a pair of scissors and the back of an incense stick. He then impaled the birds gently with incense sticks and placed them delicately on the banana stem, each facing the other with their mouths touching.

“One for you and one for your husband. For good luck,” he said. I blushed and at that point felt a sudden desire to give him a bear hug. The Thais are romantics indeed and the Loy Krathong is known to be the most romantic of all festivals in Thailand.

Once the krathongs were assembled and lined up on the buffet table, I smiled with pride seeing mine, the only one where the orchid birds were kissing, while the rest had theirs in less intimate positions.

All the guests were asked to take their seats as Nik began a briefing on the significance of the exercise.

“We do this for two reasons. One, to give thanks to the Water God for his blessings to the sea and two, to apologise for the bad things we have done. What bad things you asked?” He paused for dramatic effect before continuing, “Did anyone of you do a number one or two when you were in the water just now?”

His question obviously mortified everyone on the boat as they gasped in silence. If anyone was going to make a confession then, it wasn’t going to happen.

“Come on! I did it. When I go down from my kayak and pretend I am cooling myself in the water, pointing up at the blue sky to distract your attention, yellow stuff is flowing down,” he said unashamedly.

I burst out laughing especially at the horrified looks on most of the foreigners at Nik’s graphic illustration of his clandestine bladder movement.

“And that is why we apologise for doing dirty things to the water,” he finished calmly as if what he said earlier had no impact whatsoever on anyone.

Nik said that we would bring back the krathongs after the ritual because it is their policy not to leave anything behind. John Gray’s motto has been, Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

When the sun had fully descended, we set off with our krathongs on the kayak to make our final journey to the cave. It was total darkness except for the candles that were lighted. I made three wishes before releasing the krathong made lovingly by Mr. Yew and I. It was a moment of utter silence and respect as I reflected on the entire journey.

Before leaving, Mr. Yew and I exchanged our final farewell. I pressed my palms together, bowed and said, “Khob koon ka” to my master that day.

I left Thailand with a profound respect for the men who have worked hard so that I can see the other side of Thailand.